Dems abandon effort to widen intel inner circle

Democratic efforts to expand the number of lawmakers who are briefed by the White House on highly sensitive intelligence matters have all but died.

Senior Democrats, who once led the push to expand the so-called “Gang of Eight” briefings to include all of the members on the House and Senate Intelligence committees, say the political momentum and legislative desire have been lost.

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The lawmakers complained in recent years that President George W. Bush’s administration abused the briefings by notifying a select few members, who were sworn to secrecy, about controversial interrogation and wiretapping programs. The move fulfilled the Oval Office’s requirement to notify Congress, but Democrats argued it tied their hands in being able to act on the information. 

Expanding the briefings to include members of the full Intelligence panels would hold the president more accountable, they said.

But the Democratic outcry — which led to a failed attempt to include language in the fiscal 2010 intelligence authorization bill — has taken a backseat.

“I think right now most people are OK with the way things are, and I don’t believe an attempt would be successful,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Hill. “And I think we’ve got so much on our plate.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the move to expand the briefings to the whole committee is not one of the lower chamber’s priorities, either. Although he said he would like to see Congress take up the issue again, he could not say whether it would happen in the 112th Congress.

“I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “I think it’s an issue we have to look at. But right now there are so many other issues that are a priority. And last Congress it didn’t pass. So we’re moving on at this time.

“I believe down the road it’s something we should look at again, because I think the committee should be more involved.”

The Gang of Eight consists of the chairman and ranking member of both the House and Senate Intelligence committees, as well as the Senate majority and minority leaders, the House Speaker and the House minority leader.

The smaller group is used in place of notifying the full 35 members of the two committees whenever the president decides it is “essential to limit access to the finding to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States,” according to the law put into place by Democrats during former President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

Under President George W. Bush, members of the Gang of Eight were notified about waterboarding interrogation techniques allegedly used on prisoners the U.S. had captured. Some argue waterboarding falls under the category of torture. Lawmakers in the group were also briefed about a warrantless wiretapping program, known as the Terrorism Surveillance Program (TSP), which was ruled unconstitutional at one point and later discontinued.

Former Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), who was the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee during some of Bush’s presidency, recalled those briefings as “very difficult.”

“If you can’t talk to anyone about what you’re briefed and can’t do outside research, it’s severely limiting,” said Harman, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center, in an interview with The Hill.

“And I’m OK with that if we’re talking about the deepest covert-action secrets of our government. But when we’re talking about something that does not meet that description, I think it’s a handcuffing of Congress in an inappropriate way.”

Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA who now serves as Defense secretary, told the Senate Intelligence Committee during his CIA confirmation hearing in early 2009 that he thought “the Gang of Eight process was overused and therefore abused. Too often, critical issues were kept from this committee.”

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Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) received heavy criticism when it was revealed in 2007 that she was among those lawmakers briefed on the controversial topics over the course of at least five years. Pelosi said she was never told detainees were being subjected to waterboarding, which ignited a controversy over what she was told and when.

But the then-Speaker argued that anyone who was briefed had no power to do anything about what he or she had learned.

“You’re really a hostage if you’re notified that something has happened. They’re not asking for your thoughts,” Pelosi said in a CNN interview in April 2009.

The diminished desire from Democrats to expand the Gang of Eight briefings is not necessarily due to a lack of intelligence briefings from the White House, which has continued to inform the Gang about secretive matters on a regular basis, including the recently successful operation to hunt down 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Ruppersberger said that with the exception of the briefings on bin Laden, he thinks all of the information he’s received as a member of the Gang of Eight could easily be given to members of the full committee without much concern over it being leaked, which is the White House’s main objection to expanding the briefings.

But the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), is refraining from weighing in on the issue. A spokeswoman for the former FBI agent declined to comment numerous times when asked for his position.

Rogers’s notable reticence on the matter is likely due to the political partisanship that has encompassed the debate for the past several years.